We are all familiar with cross examination in trial—it seems to be the highlight of every legal TV show or televised trial. What you may not be aware of is that the constitution’s sixth amendment actually guarantees defendants a right to cross examine—that is, the right to question their accusers (or in criminal cases, the state and its witnesses).

Defendant has Probation Revoked

A recent Maryland appellate court case discusses the parameters of that right when it comes to a probation revocation hearing. The case involves a defendant who pleaded guilty to a robbery charge. His sentence involved probation. During his probation, he tested positive for marijuana,  thus violating his probation, and as a result was sentenced to serve prison time for the robbery.

In 2013, Maryland revoked the death penalty. That may have been because trials are imperfect, and thus, the possibility of taking an innocent person’s life is too great a risk. That left Maryland’s highest penalty being life without parole.

But with the change came a new problem—unlike there was with the death penalty, there are few standards that a judge or jury need to abide by to sentence someone to life. This potentially leaves what is known as the second most severe penalty in our American justice system to chance, risking inconsistent standards and uncertainty in sentencing.

Bill Seeks to Create Standards

Sometimes it is interesting to see how issues that look like they have nothing to do with criminal justice end up affecting criminal justice. Such was the case this week, when the United States Supreme Court made a ruling based upon whether Puerto Rico was a sovereign state or not.

Can Puerto Rico Prosecute?

We know that Puerto Rico is not a U.S. State. In fact, it has its own constitution and its own government, a power given to it by the United States in 1950. Still, the country is tied to the U.S. Federal Government and its powers are provided to it by the U.S. Essentially, Congress makes the rules. So can Puerto Rico prosecute someone who has already been prosecuted by a federal court without running afoul of the double jeopardy clause?

The constitution guarantees us a jury of our peers in criminal matters. It is one of the most fundamental constitutional rights that we have. But our judicial system is also intended to be racially blind, and selecting jurors based on race or nationality is prohibited. Often these two seemingly contradictory principles collide, as they did recently in a case that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

African-American Jurors Stricken From Jury

The case involved an African-American man who was convicted in Georgia of murdering an elderly white woman. The jury was made up of jurors who were all white. The four African-American potential jurors, were eliminated from the jury before the trial. Twenty years after the conviction, the man’s attorneys argued to the Supreme Court that the selection of that jury was racially based.

Maryland is again looking to be one of the more progressive states in the nation when it comes to criminal justice reform, as legislators have agreed to pass a sweeping crime reform bill. The bill is unique in that it strengthens criminal penalties in some areas, but shifts the focus of criminal penalties in others.

The New Law

The new law, called the Justice Reinvestment Act, has a number of changes to Maryland’s criminal justice laws. The new law allows those who have finished 25% of sentences to be administratively released. The provision would only apply to nonviolent drug offenses, or thefts where the amount was less than $1,500. In some cases, if public safety is threatened, a parole commission can opt not to provide the early release.

Sometimes, the United States Supreme Court rules by declining to rule. When a case is appealed to the Supreme Court, the Court may opt to not accept the case. When that happens, the practical effect is that the law created by the lower court remains the law.

This was the case recently when the Supreme Court declined to get involved in a case involving the Eighth Amendment’s restriction on cruel and unusual punishment.

Severe Penalty for Drug Possession

Many people know, or at least are aware of the doctrine of causation. It means that someone’s negligence needs to cause the injury that was sustained by the victim. Causation—sometimes called proximate cause—is a crucial element in almost every personal injury case.

Foreseeability

A lot of people may not be aware that causation can play a part in criminal cases as well, and that someone who breaks the law and causes an injury can be criminally charged even if they did not directly injure anyone.

The constitutional issues surrounding cell phones and due process continue to evolve. Stingrays are devices that track cellphones even when they are not in use. The devices emulate cell phone towers, thus prompting phones to connect to them, and thus revealing location information of the phones. Law enforcement has used these devices which can track someone’s location through their cell phone, even when the cell phone isn’t actually  being used.

Recently, there has been a new development in this issue. A court has determined that before law enforcement can use a Stingray device, they must in fact obtain a warrant.

Warrants Were Not Being Used

We tend to think of constitutional rights as a universal concept or as something that each and every state agency owes to us. Anytime a government agency can deprive us of liberty or take away what we perceive as a right, we envision the protections of the constitution governing any dispute that we may have.

University Policies

But that may not always be the case, and that particularly is true when it comes to public colleges and universities.  This can be particularly troubling, as many large universities function almost as “mini-cities,” with parking enforcement, housing, campus police, and financial assistance to those in need. And of course, our universities provide us the most important benefit of a college degree.

We have previously kept you up to date on Maryland’s slow but steady legal changes, which represent a different approach to fighting the drug war. Maryland’s attempt to overhaul its drug laws is continuing, as the legislature is now reviewing proposed radical changes, which would make the state somewhat of a pioneer on the drug front.

Proposed Changes Take a Different Approach

The first proposed law is one that would provide for on-demand treatment at emergency rooms, for people admitted with drug-related problems. While this may seem counterintuitive, it stems from a study showing that for every dollar spent on treatment $12 is saved on healthcare and criminal justice costs. The law would require hospitals have a drug counselor available at all times, and require them to have pre-set arrangements to transfer patients to rehabilitation centers.